Late last month, the Healthcare Anchor Network, a coalition of more than three dozen health systems in 45 states and Washington, D.C., released a public statement declaring: “It is undeniable: Racism is a public health crisis.” In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May, many states, cities and counties across the United States issued similar declarations, according to the American Public Health Association.
While it is becoming clear that ZIP code may matter more to longevity than genetic code, some public health experts have been sounding the alarm for decades. Indeed, poverty and racism have an enormous – and devastating – impact on health, according to a panel of experts brought together for a webinar hosted by U.S. News & World Report as part of the Community Health Leadership Forum, a new virtual event series.
In Chicago, as just one example, life expectancy between some neighborhoods can vary by 30 years, because of factors like access to health care, education, nutritional food sources, income and what many call systematic disinvestment dating back decades.
COVID-19 has made such inequities impossible to ignore. Expected at first to be “the great equalizer,” hitting all demographics equally hard, the novel coronavirus has caused impoverished, mostly Black and underrepresented minority populations to suffer far more death and ill health effects than their white peers.
COVID-19 “attacks vulnerabilities in a truly diabolical way,” said featured speaker Wes Moore, chief executive officer of Robin Hood, one of the nation’s leading anti-poverty organizations.
“We are going to need a concerted and a collective effort to deal with a calcified and hard problem” of poverty and racism and how they influence health, Moore said. Half of the population of New York City lived in poverty for at least one year over the past four years, Moore said, and the probability of dipping back into poverty within a year was 37% – even before COVID-19 hit. “The data continues to reinforce the fact that … [poverty] is not a choice of the person who is feeling the weight of poverty, it’s society’s choice,” Moore said.
Those in poverty are far more likely to have preexisting conditions like asthma, diabetes and obesity, Moore noted, putting them at greater risk of death from COVID-19 and other illnesses.
In his new book, “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City,” Moore examined the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and its aftermath in the city of Baltimore. Moore wrote that Gray, born premature and underweight to a heroin-addicted mother, had grown up in poverty and was exposed to lead at a far greater rate than the limit recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Freddie Gray never had a shot,” Moore said, because he was failed by every social system, including the health system, and not just law enforcement.
Yet Moore remains optimistic. “We are not yet what we can be; our responsibility to get there is our responsibility to get there,” he said. Citing a